20th century

Exploring the History of Mexico in the Murals of The Big Three

Kacper Grass 22 January 2021 min Read

Although most commonly associated with the works of Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, muralism has actually been part of Mexico’s artistic heritage since pre-Colombian times. In fact, we have learned that Mesoamerican civilizations adorned their palaces and temples with murals. They illustrated everything from historical events such as wars to religious ceremonies like human sacrifices. So, here is the history of Mexico as written in the murals of The Big Three.

Muralism at the Roots of Mexican History

Mural from Bonampak, unknown Mayan artist, 8th century CE, Chiapas, Mexico, The History of Mexico in Murals
Mexican History in murals: Bonampak Murals, 8th century CE, Bonampak, Chiapas, Mexico.

One surviving example of such ancient muralism is seen in the so-called Temple of Murals. This is located within the Mayan archeological site of Bonampak and dates back to the 8th century CE. Representations of Mesoamerican life by both Rivera and Orozco show the influence of this indigenous style of painting. We see this, in particular, in Rivera’s The Great City of Tenochtitlan. This work captures the unspoiled beauty and splendor of the Aztec capital before the Spanish conquest.

The Great City of Tenochtitlan, Diego Rivera, 1945, Palacio Nacional de México, The History of Mexico in Murals
Mexican History in murals: Diego Rivera, The Great City of Tenochtitlan, 1945, Palacio Nacional de México, Mexico. Fine Art America.

On the other hand, Orozco uses a more primitive style to show the less innocent side of Native American culture. We see this in certain panels from The Epic of American Civilization, especially in one titled Ancient Human Sacrifice.

The Epic of American Civilization, José Clemente Orozco, 1934, Baker Memorial Library – Dartmouth College , The History of Mexico in Murals
Mexican History in murals: José Clemente Orozco, Ancient Human Sacrifice from The Epic of American Civilization, 1934, Baker Memorial Library, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, USA. Wikimedia Commons.

Spanish Conquest of Mesoamerica

In 1492, Christopher Columbus completed his first voyage to the Caribbean. Thus began the age of Spanish colonization in the Americas. Shortly afterwards, in 1519, Hernan Cortés became the first European to reach the mainland. Famously, upon arriving on the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, he ordered his men to sink the ships. He did this to make clear to his crew that there would be no turning back. They had to conquer the indigenous empires first. In fact, the fall of the Aztec capital marked the beginning of complete Spanish domination over the native people. And we see this change reflected in Rivera’s mural The Arrival of Cortés. Here, he no longer focuses on the impressive temples or beautiful canals of the Aztec civilization. Instead, his painting depicts the slave trade and forced conversions to Christianity that became commonplace under Spanish rule.

The Arrival of Cortés, Diego Rivera, 1951, Palacio Nacional de México, The History of Mexico in Murals
Mexican History in murals: Diego Rivera, The Arrival of Cortés, 1951, Palacio Nacional de México, Mexico. Artes Mexut.

In his The Torment of Cuauhtémoc, Siqueiros depicts the conquistadors’ execution of the last Aztec emperor. In many ways, the Spaniards’ methods of “civilizing” the native people were not so different from local religious practices. These had also been seen as savage. So, sadly, the brutality of the Spanish Inquisition in the Americas went on unquestioned. However, this changed when the Dominican friar, Bartolomé de las Casas, published A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies. This famous work chronicled the atrocities committed against the native people in what had become the Viceroyalty of New Spain.

The Torment of Cuauhtémoc, David Alfaro Siqueiros, 1950, Palacio de Bellas Artes – México, The History of Mexico in Murals
Mexican History in murals: David Alfaro Siqueiros, The Torment of Cuauhtémoc, 1950, Palacio de Bellas Artes, México, Mexico. Wikimedia Commons.

Independence from Spain

By the early 19th century, Spain was losing its control over an empire that stretched across two continents. In 1810 the Mexican War of Independence broke out. This coincided with the liberation of much of South America by the armies of Simón Bolívar. One of the first instigators and military leaders of the independence movement was a priest, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla. In 1810, he successfully marched his army through the country until he reached Mexico City. This was now the Spanish capital which, significantly, had been built on the site of what was once Tenochtitlan. Significantly, Hildago managed to trap the Royalist troops inside the city. Yet, despite being aware of his advantage, he then retreated.

Historians widely believe that Hildago made this abrupt decision in order to save his fellow citizens in Mexico City from the pillaging that would inevitably follow the rebels’ victory. Thus, the war continued, and Mexico did not gain its independence until 1821.

Father Hidalgo, José Clemente Orozco, 1949, Palacio Municipal de Guadalajara, The History of Mexico in Murals
Mexican History in murals: José Clemente Orozco, Father Hidalgo, 1949, Palacio Municipal de Guadalajara, Guadalajara, Mexico. Wikimedia Commons.

Two of Orozco’s murals commemorate the patriotic services of the revolutionary priest. They are Father Hidalgo and The Great Mexican Revolutionary Law and Freedom of the Slaves. In these works, Orozco presents Hidalgo in a social realist style. This shows the influence his ideas had on the country’s 20th century revolutionary movements.

The Great Mexican Revolutionary Law and Freedom of the Slaves, José Clemente Orozco, 1949, Palacio Municipal de Guadalajara
Mexican History in murals: José Clemente Orozco, The Great Mexican Revolutionary Law and Freedom of the Slaves, 1949, Palacio Municipal de Guadalajara, Guadalajara, Mexico. Wikimedia Commons.

The Mexican Revolution

The first century of Mexico’s independence was a tumultuous period. It was marked by unstable political regimes, great economic inequality, and a loss of considerable territory in a war with the United States. It was the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz that brought Mexico into the 20th century. However, this ended in 1911 at the start of the Mexican Revolution. Under the leadership of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, amongst others, the various factions managed to institute constitutional and agrarian reforms. These were implemented after a decade-long conflict that, according to some estimates, had resulted in around two million deaths.

From the Dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz to the Revolution, The People in Arms, David Alfaro Siqueiros, 1966, Museo Nacional de Historia
Mexican History in murals: David Alfaro Siqueiros, The People in Arms, from the Dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz to the Revolution, 1966, Museo Nacional de Historia, Castillo de Chapultepec, Mexico.

Siqueiros depicts this period in his mural ‘From the Dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz to the Revolution, The People in Arms’. In this work he traces how the extravagant and lavish lifestyle of the aristocracy did much to fuel the anger of the country’s exploited peasants at the start of the revolution.

From the Dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz to the Revolution, The People in Arms, David Alfaro Siqueiros, 1966, Museo Nacional de Historia
Mexican History in murals: David Alfaro Siqueiros, The People in Arms, from the Dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz to the Revolution, 1966, Museo Nacional de Historia, Castillo de Chapultepec, Mexico.

The legacy

“Los tres grandes” (or “the big three,” as they are known) dedicated their talents to presenting the history of their country from its origins. In so doing, they left a legacy which continues to inspire new generations of Mexican artists. Yet, at the same time they preserved an artistic tradition that lies at the very heart of that country’s cultural heritage. Today, the influence of Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros can be seen throughout the country. This extends from the murals which decorate the villages of Zapatista rebels in the jungles of Chiapas to those lining the streets on neighborhood walls of Mexico City.